How people interpret conditionals: Shifts towards the conditional event

Journal of Experimental Psychology 37 (3):635-648 (2011)
Abstract
We investigated how people interpret conditionals and how stable their interpretation is over a long series of trials. Participants were shown the colored patterns on each side of a six-sided die, and were asked how sure they were that a conditional holds of the side landing upwards when the die is randomly thrown. Participants were presented with 71 trials consisting of all combinations of binary dimensions of shape (e.g., circles and squares) and color (e.g., blue and red) painted onto the sides of each die. In two experiments (N1 = 66, N2 = 65), the conditional event was the dominant interpretation, followed by conjunction, and material conditional responses were negligible. In both experiments, the percentage of participants giving a conditional event response increased from around 40% at the beginning of the task to nearly 80% at the end, with most participants shifting from a conjunction interpretation. The shift was moderated by the order of shape and color in each conditional’s antecedent and consequent: participants were more likely to shift if the antecedent referred to a color. In Experiment 2 we collected response times: conditional event interpretations took longer to process than conjunction interpretations (mean difference 500 ms). We discuss implications of our results for mental models theory and probabilistic theories of reasoning.
Keywords conditioanals  shift of interpretation  reasoning  probability
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